A New Perspective on Culture in Lori Rader-Day’s The Black Hour

A huge congrats from all of us Debs to Lori on the launch of THE BLACK HOUR! I feel so lucky to have seen (just a small part of) the hard work and dedication Lori’s put into not just this book, but her writing career, and I know that huge things are ahead for her. Congratulations, Lori!

Being a Peruvian-born writer who grew up in the U.S., I get asked a lot about culture. What was it like growing up with two languages, two countries that influenced you in different ways? How did you infuse culture into the story?

I appreciate the discussion and curiosity, but I also find it interesting that not ALL authors get asked similar questions about their work. Culture is more than where we’re born or what our ethnicity is; every work of fiction, if the writer has built a world that feels real, is infused with culture.

Black Hour cover web2Lori’s The Black Hour is a beautiful example of this. Set in a Chicago college campus, it’s a seriously smart and insightful look at multiple cultures: the culture of academia, college campus culture, and even the culture of violence. The way Lori makes each not only come alive, but clash, is brilliantly calculated.

Take Rothbert campus: it’s its own world with its own social hierarchies, its own unique landscape. The faculty members all know each other, but they also know of each other, gossiping and speculating on one another’s work, private lives, and career. Never is this more evident than when tenured sociology professor Amelia Emmet is shot by a student on campus, and survives. Dr. Emmet returns to campus the following semester and finds herself the subject of rumors and whispers about why she was the shooter’s sole victim. Co-workers wonder if she was somehow involved with the student. Students register for her class just to feel closer to the crime. From the very beginning we start to see our own culture reflected in that of Rothbert University’s: why is it that it seems almost standard that a female victim of violence is presumed to have done something to have had it coming? And where do we draw the line between news we need to know, and a morbid fascination with violence playing out in the lives of others?

While Dr. Emmet tries to explain the inexplicable, Lori put campus culture under a lens and makes us take a look, trying to find patterns in human behavior:

“Virgina Tech. Northern Illinois. The shooting from the bell tower at that university in Texas back in the ’60s that had forever marred the concept of having a bell tower around. Campuses like Rothbert attracted lots of high-strung people unaccustomed to concepts like failure and loneliness. They wanted to stand out, and found themselves in a crowd of people just like themselves or worse—smarter, more driven, more connected, more successful.”

I read fiction for a lot of reasons: sometimes to escape, sometimes for entertainment, sometimes, to simply understand our humanity better. This doesn’t always take us to happy places, but it takes us to necessary ones. It’s scary to find you recognize bits of yourself in a culture as seemingly disturbed as that of Rothbert, where the name of the dorm you live in defines you in the eyes of others the way a neighborhood does, and cliques form with the quickness of a single sentence uttered in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time, leaving the lonely behind.

But it’s also eye-opening. Reading The Black Hour, I found myself immersed in the language of academia, in what it would’ve been like had I chosen to live a life dedicated to research and degrees and tenure-tracks. I remembered what it was like to be a student, caught up in the microcosm that is a college campus, a strange purgatory between who you used to be and who you hope to become. And though I could never understand what would make someone shoot another person and shoot themselves, I feel I got a look at where that kind of desperation begins to form in a person. That kind of perspective and understanding is in many ways more telling of a culture than anything we might find in a news story.

In what other ways do you define culture in fiction and in life?

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Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester is the author of the novel CHASING THE SUN (Lake Union/New Harvest, June 2014), about a frail marriage tested to the extreme by the wife's kidnapping in Lima, Peru. A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Texas. Visit her online at nataliasylvester.com

This article has 5 Comments

  1. I thought Lori really nailed the campus culture, both in terms of the students and the faculty. It was one of the things that made the book seem so real right from the start.

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